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Mobile fibre mill  RSS feed

 
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What if there was a mobile fibre processing mill that would travel to an area and process wool into yarn?

From what I know about this topic (which is quite a lot), this is an impossible idea.  I can see thousands of reasons why it won't work.  But let's pretend that it could work.

What would a mobile fibre mill look like and how would it work?  If it was possible, how would we overcome the obstacles?

I'm thinking about mobile abattoirs and juicing stations.  They go to a region, stay there for a week.  The farmers get together to pay for the station to be set up so that it doesn't cost one farmer too much.  For Juicing stations, the farmer brings the apples, the machines juice them, pasteurize the juice, then package it.  The farmer either pays to have this done and they get the juice back, or sometimes the juicing station is owned by a larger company and they buy the apples off the farmer and keep the juice.

The neat thing about these mobile stations is that it allows people in rural locations to have access to these amenities in conditions that meet the legal requirements for selling their product.  

If a mobile fibre mill was possible, this is what I think it would look like.

The week prior to the arrival of the mill, a team of people arrive and give lessons to the farmers on how to grow great wool and to skirt and sort it ready for processing.  The class would cost so much, and farmers that complete it would get that price discounted off their first order.  This pre-arrival team would also start buying fleece and washing it (so maybe they have a small cube van with all the equipment they need to wash and dry the wool in time for the arrival of the main mill).

When the mill arrives, it stays somewhere for a few weeks to a month.  Processes the fibre, then moves on.  It would need access to electricity and water.  Probably a barn or tents to help provide enough room for processing.  Maybe the mill equipment stays in the truck because it's pretty heavy but the sorting and stuff is done outside?

But wouldn't it be neat.  Where we live, we have loads of islands with lots of sheep, but not quite enough to sustain a mill in one location.  It could go to one island and make yarn there.  All that yarn would be marketed as "saltspring island yarn"  The next island yarn could be "denman island yarn" or whatever.  

Let's talk about it as if it was possible.  What do you imagine this would look like?
 
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Hi R.

I love the idea. I think it should apply to as many value adding processes as it can be applied to. Abbatoirs, butchery, charcuterie and other meatsmithing, maybe even other types of materials or food processing and preserving. I mean, if juicing is done that way, how far off is a mobile cidery? Oh, sure, you'd need barrels, or some other container, and you'd need to be able to cellar them at the right temperature, but even just making the most equipment-intensive parts of a process mobile, that would free up time for other things.

I don't see why it should be impossible. Those impossibilities you are thinking of might just be other people's pessimism, and only hurdles to clear to get you to your goal.

-CK
 
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I wouldn't say impossible just perhaps impractical. People used to do a 100% of the processing on farm so obviously a small operation is possible. The problem is making it profitable. Even many of the mobile slaughter houses have gone bust. Most small farms need meat processing but how many need fiber processing? Say I have ten sheep or half a dozen Alpacas is it worth having a mobile operation show up and process my fiber? Say you need 3 people to handle processing. First you need to decide the services you want to offer. Do you shear or just turn the washed fiber into yarn? Cleaning Fleeces takes a lot of water so you need either a massive water tank or on farm access, then you need water disposal. Simply turning fiber into thread is the easiest but still it's a lot of labor. I just looked it up and sheep range from 2 to 30 pounds so say 15 on average so 10 sheep would be 150 pounds of fiber. It seems like normal wool is worth around $15 a pound in yarn so your 150#s is worth $2250. If your three people make $250 a day which isn't much and your rig costs a $1000 a day that's $1,750 in hard costs just to show up and do the day. Even at a very modest of $250 profit you're still at $2,000 it'll cost the farmer so he'd need to spend a total of $250 on ten sheep just to break even. The numbers are much worse if you're processing 3 to 5 animals. What if you're processing a 100 to 500 animals? Well then either the farmer sets up to do it themselves or they haul animals to a factory processor who can keep costs down with volume. I can see it making sense for high value fibers like Angora and High quality Alpaca but not for cheaper fibers. The biggest problem is having enough farmers in the area to cover the costs. If you have to drive 3 hours to the farm you just blew half the day on the road. Now if you had a really large rig and had a sheep enter the front and meat and yarn came out the back and you were doing 50 or a 100 animals at a farm it could work but most don't harvest the sheep they raise them for wool. I doubt most will hand you cleaned fleeces so water is your biggest problem. If you blow through 10,000 gallons of water that's a lot to dispose of and the state will want a disposal plan from you. Rather than mobile if you have enough people in your area to make it worth while then set up a processing plant and have them bring in their animals. This allows you to create a water disposal plan and means you don't have to try to cram everything into a small rig. For farmers who can't transport animals you could offer a taxi service to pick up and deliver. It would make more sense than a mobile processing plant.
 
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Let's compare this to other Farm Based Services. People often have a veterinarian or a farrier come to their farm. I think we'd want to know how much an average visit costs. This is for one person with a relatively small tool kit. I imagine the tool kit for washing, drying, carding and spinning wool, is going to be extensive.

Here's another model. Let's just offer trimming, washing and carding. I think there are many people who like to spin their own, but they may not want to deal with raw wool. Let's look at where farmers already meet. They already go to farm supply stores and farmers markets. I think it would be more efficient to have people bring their raw fleece to the market. Then the processor could do it at their own place.

The washing of horse blankets is a niche market sort of thing. I met a lady at a farmers market, who was selling her vegetables, but also had a spot in the back of the truck, for horse blankets. She picks them up and drops them off, at different markets that they frequent. The expensive machine is housed in the barn, on a farm that has plenty of clean water, and a suitable place to hang the blankets. If she had to drive to each place to pick up the blankets, the price would surely have to be much higher, and the work would have to be done right then. Right now, it just adds a little bit to her workload on Market Day, when much of her time is spent chatting. Her husband runs the machine, and he's not under time pressure, other than having to get them ready for the following weekend.
 
raven ranson
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Say I have ten sheep or half a dozen Alpacas is it worth having a mobile operation show up and process my fiber?



I was thinking it would process all the fibre for the community, not just one farm.  This would be processing a few thousand fleeces during its stay, not just half a dozen.

 Cleaning Fleeces takes a lot of water



Yes... and no.  Yes, it does use a lot of water the way most people do it... and no, it doesn't have to.

There are ways to clean the fleece that takes a tiny amount of water compared to regular methods.  The three tub system is my favourite (see The Big Book of Handspinning for a lengthy description on how this works and how much better it works when scaled up).  What's more, the remaining water contains loads of plant-friendly nutrients and if one uses the right soap, can also be used on the crops for insect control.  Basically the hoast of the mill gets free fertilizer for their fields in an easy to apply forum - stacking functions.  

The water would definitely need to be provided by the farm that is hosting the fibre mill.

Or better still, the mobile mill people send a representative to teach the farmers how to wash their own wool to the standards that the mill can process... thus saving the mill workers time and the farmers money.  

I just looked it up and sheep range from 2 to 30 pounds so say 15 on average so 10 sheep would be 150 pounds of fiber. It seems like normal wool is worth around $15 a pound in yarn so your 150#s is worth $2250. If your three people make $250 a day which isn't much and your rig costs a $1000 a day that's $1,750 in hard costs just to show up and do the day. Even at a very modest of $250 profit you're still at $2,000 it'll cost the farmer so he'd need to spend a total of $250 on ten sheep just to break even.  



My own experience is a bit different.  

Discarding heavy wool breeds like Corriedale and merino, I would say the average fleece weight, off the sheep, in my experience, is about 10 pounds.  About 3 of those pounds are lost in the skirting, another maybe two pounds are lost in the cleaning and processing.  So one can reasonably expect 5 pounds of yarn from a regular meat or duel purpose sheep.  (this is a rough number, of course, it varies depending on so many factors that don't need going into at this time)

Locally sourced yarn here retails for $25 to $55 per 100g.  (maybe someone can do the math on what that is for 5 pounds of yarn?)  

For the farmer to have the same fibre made into yarn in our local(ish) mills, it would cost them a starting price of $60 per kilo.  (again, math).  

The smallest of the wool mills I can find has a throughput of 30 pounds a day.  Most are much larger than that, but larger might mean less mobile.

I'm not sure why you have three people working the mill.  Getting the local farmers trained and involved would make things much easier.  The vanguard would give classes and set up the washing stations - which could be manned by local farmers.

I think I could see a team of two running things with local helpers.

Now if you had a really large rig and had a sheep enter the front and meat and yarn came out the back  



Um... how to put this?  The animals won't be coming to the mill.  

Meat and wool processing happen at very different times.  If a sheep struggles during sheering, it can bruise the meat.  Sheering is also a good time for vaccine updates and other shots, for those who do that sort of thing, which usually has several weeks withdrawal period (you can't harvest the meat).  What's more, sheering often happens just before lambing so to get the best quality fibre and make it easier to assist the ewe for birthing and easier for the lamb to find the milk sacks.  

I can't see farmers bringing their sheep to the mill.  That would be difficult, stressful for the sheep, and risk picking up disease.  Farmers I know are very loyal to their shearers and won't be interested in having the sheep shorn by a stranger.  Also, shearing needs to happen at a particular time of year depending on all sorts of factors particular to each farm. I can't see a mobile mill keeping up with the timing.  



The more I look at this, the more I can see the logic of how to make this work.  One of the big advantages of wool processing over food production is that there aren't as many regulations so you don't need to build things like separate toilets for inspectors that no one else can enter except to clean.  
 
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What about having the fibre processing on a boat? And recovering the lanolin from the wool? The rest of the dirt in the wool is probably valuable as fertiliser. If there was a very good filtration system, maybe the water could be returned to the ocean or lake.  Of course a boat wouldn't work in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and much of the US. But for BC and the eastern provinces in Canada, and also much of Ontario and Quebec, the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes would provide a passageway that would be somewhat accessible from fibre growing areas. I am in Ontario but a good 10 hours north of the Toronto area. I had fibre processed at Wellington Fibres in Elora, Ontario, and was shocked by the over $1,000 bill for about 5 garbage bags of roving and some yarn. I was told if I had pre-washed the wool even once my bill would have been significantly less. Belfast Mini Mills in PEI makes a machine that washes 3 fleeces at a time that they sell for around $2500. (They also sell other wool processing equipment.) A few co-ops of sheep and alpaca farmers in a region should be able to get together and buy units like these together. For the rest of the processing, what about paying individuals to do the carding by hand with either a drum carder or a pair of hand cards or combs? Then the equipment cost is manageable, the labour cost is rightfully the biggest long term cost, and is covered by the price the product is sold for, and the whole process stays local. Having it done by hand would help maintain quality, given some training. However, this is probably not possible given the recent hike in minimum wage. A sock machine might help, people seem to be willing to pay $30 a pair for alpaca blend socks, and there aren't very many knitters who can turn out a pair in an hour, but a hand crank sock machine can do that. L'Islet is a brand of sock machine still being made, for around $1,000 per unit; sometimes used ones are available for a bit less. I am looking forward to hemp being less regulated in Canada, and wondering what a hemp/alpaca/wool blend sock would be like. Wool adds stretch, alpaca adds softness, and hemp would add strength and absorbency, but may not hold up in stress areas at the toe and heel as well as the usual nylon.
There would be fewer regulations for fibre processing than meat processing.  
 
raven ranson
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jared strand wrote:Have you ever seen a pin drafter?  Or seen how many tiny parts are on a spinning machine?  



I've visited quite a few mills... back when we had local mills.  I'm indirectly associated with some rather large mills so I know a wee bit about how things scale up.  We also have a local mill setting up not far from my home with some rather aged equipment, some of which is over 140 years old and still working better than many modern machines.

jared strand wrote: When these machines are delivered, it often takes weeks of settling and adjusting before they are running optimally.



I think this is really useful and adds loads to the conversation.

Since this is a theoretical conversation that started with "If it was possible, how would we overcome the obstacles?", I'm curious to hear how you would overcome this obstacle?  
 
 
Dale Hodgins
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I can't think of any human endeavor , that isn't made more difficult, by doing it on a boat. Okay, there's fishing, but beyond that, just about everything is more difficult. Getting anything to and from the boat, is usually the largest obstacle to overcome. Then there's that tricky issues surrounding water quality and anything agricultural.
 
raven ranson
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Gretchen Austin wrote:What about having the fibre processing on a boat? And recovering the lanolin from the wool? The rest of the dirt in the wool is probably valuable as fertiliser. If there was a very good filtration system, maybe the water could be returned to the ocean or lake.  Of course a boat wouldn't work in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and much of the US. But for BC and the eastern provinces in Canada, and also much of Ontario and Quebec, the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes would provide a passageway that would be somewhat accessible from fibre growing areas. I am in Ontario but a good 10 hours north of the Toronto area. I had fibre processed at Wellington Fibres in Elora, Ontario, and was shocked by the over $1,000 bill for about 5 garbage bags of roving and some yarn. I was told if I had pre-washed the wool even once my bill would have been significantly less. Belfast Mini Mills in PEI makes a machine that washes 3 fleeces at a time that they sell for around $2500. (They also sell other wool processing equipment.) A few co-ops of sheep and alpaca farmers in a region should be able to get together and buy units like these together.  



I love this boat idea.  I don't know how it would work, but I think it's really nifty.

Our last fibre mill to close was run by a local farmer's coop.  They had a lot of trouble with the quality of the fibre and people sending unskirted or buggy wool.  Poor quality fibre makes yarn that is less lovely than good quality fibre.  If there was some way of educating the farmers on some tiny things they could do to help improve wool quality, I think there would have been fewer dissatisfied customers.  Lots of reasons why they folded.  I'm so glad we have a new mill opening up this spring.

For the rest of the processing, what about paying individuals to do the carding by hand with either a drum carder or a pair of hand cards or combs?  



It doesn't take long at all to process wool by hand.  I can't figure out why more people don't do it.  Either they don't know how to do it the easy way or they imagine it's too hard.  

I think the stumbling block with this is that the next machines need the wool prepared in a specific way before they can use them.  I don't know if hand processing could do this.


A sock machine might help, people seem to be willing to pay $30 a pair for alpaca blend socks, and there aren't very many knitters who can turn out a pair in an hour, but a hand crank sock machine can do that.



Love this idea.

 
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R Ranson, there you go with your impossible ideas again?  :-D (There is a lovely and inspiring thread on impossible ideas, if anyone needs their mood elevated:  Permies.com Anger Tranformed )

Where there is demand, a solution will eventually be found to meet it, by someone.  Lots of articles out there about how yarn production is going up the past few years.  Globally.  So it seems this is a great time to start looking at this seriously.

Does anyone know what's been the most recent innovation in yarn spinning? (This is not rhetorical, I'm asking a real question... )

Here is a website from an Irish Canadian company, called MiniMills. Mini Mills 4 Spindle Spinning Machine



Here is a video of their rug yarn maker:


Maybe that would be simpler, but still worthwhile?  Rug yarn?

 
Dale Hodgins
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He said five pounds an hour. I wonder if he meant 5 lb per minute. That would be 300 pounds per hour.
 
raven ranson
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Mini mills are actually from Prince Edward island, Canada.    They are some of the smaller milling equipment available as well as larger equipment.  I imagine theirs would be the best for a mobile mill.

There mills are awesome!  That's the equipment our local farmers coop used.
 
Gretchen Austin
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Here is a website from an Irish company, called MiniMills. Mini Mills 4 Spindle Spinning Machine

Belfast Mini Mills is in Canada, in our smallest province, Prince Edward Island. Their accent does sound a bit Irish, but they are Canadian.

I was thinking a boat because r ransom mentioned sheep on islands. A boat wouldn't have the same width restrictions that a trailer or truck would have. I'm thinking a larger boat, more like a small ferry, with the same ability to be fixed to a port so vehicles can drive on and off it. Wool could also be moved on and off the boat the same way we move bales of hay into lofts of barns, with a motorised conveyor belt.

He said five pounds an hour. I wonder if he meant 5 lb per minute. That would be 300 pounds per hour.

I think he meant 5 pounds of fleece per hour, which is not the weight of the finished yarn that is produced per hour. Because the yarn is made of fleece wrapped around the sisal twine, the finished yarn is considerably heavier than the fleece used to make it. I have seen this type of yarn made with alpaca fleece, and it is nice for rugs but some of the sisal does poke through, so not likely the kind of rug you would want by a bed, to be stepped on with bare feet, though I imagine the sisal gets softer with time and washing. It certainly does get softer when it is out in the weather for a few seasons!

I am excited about making things like sections of moccasins with wool blend felt. I watched a video recently about the need for our bare feet to be in contact with soil in order to reduce inflammation, so that free electrons which are a big cause of inflammation, can return to the ground.
I am certain leather and wool felt conduct electricity better than rubber shoes or boots. Does anyone have a cheap way of making felt, either using water or felting needles? This is totally a rabbit trail, but now I am thinking of how to build an earthen floor in a basement with a moisture barrier under the floor surface which does not stop the flow of electricity. And making wool and leather shoes that won't stop the flow of electricity from the ground.
 
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I want to do this too.
 
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Hi R.
There are not many things that are really impossible.
So I think this idea is possible.

Probably we only have to change the way we think. First of all we have to change the way we think about 'money'. But of course that's a very different discussion
 
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I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of weeks, and I have to say that I think it’s a really good idea.  The only big issue I can see, and I think it would be pretty easy to solve, is biosecurity.  It would be really easy to transmit diseases or things like lice between farms without taking proper biosecurity measures.  That said, I think it would be pretty easy to set up a good biosecurity protocol so that never happened.

A mobile fiber processor could arrive on shearing day and process fiber into value added products right than and there, which would save the fiber farmer a huge amount in transaction costs (both time and money).

A good low cost way to start up a mobile fiber processing business would be to start with a good quality drum carder like a Pat Green Supercard, and an electronic spinner.  There are compact three-sink stainless steel commercial sinks that could be easily fitted inside a utility trailer or retrofitted horse trailer for washing fiber. These things can sometimes be picked up on craigslist, for an even cheaper way to get started.

I hope someone will actually do this.  As I said, I think it’s a great idea.
 
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Some one I think it was Chris mentioned a mobile cidery ,in France they take things even further . I know a mobile distillery :-) now that is cool but alas now illegal .
I don't think this is a mad idea farmers regularly share equipment like combines here in France as they don't need them 24/7 and they cost big monies . Why not buy a mobile set up together and slot time between the producers every producer trained to use the machines ?
Every producer can either sell their stuff or the cooperative that owns the mill can also be the lable to sell the produce

David
 
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